How to start a support network for social enterprise

With the economic recession in 2008, London’s nonprofit community expressed a desire to explore and learn more about social enterprise and its dual potential for revenue generation and positive impact. Pillar’s journey to become a support network for social enterprise began when Pathways Skills Development provided generous support for our Executive Director to attend the Social Enterprise World Forum in San Francisco with the theme of “Realizing the Potential of Social Enterprise”. Attending this event helped to kick start Pillar’s role in supporting and building capacity for social enterprise in our community. Keep reading to learn about the stages of supporting social enterprise that evolved at Pillar including capacity building, access to capital, consulting and enabling market opportunity.

Creating a support system in midsize cities

As a next step, we hosted the Innovation & Resilience Forum to explore ways that nonprofits and charities could create resilience amidst challenging financial circumstances. The forum included sessions on social innovation and social enterprise, and attendees expressed an appetite for more learning about the potential of social enterprise for revenue generation. Later that year, we were awarded a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation along with our partner cities of Sarnia-Lambton, and Ottawa-Carlton and we worked with the United Way London & Middlesex and the Ivey School of Business to begin the three year Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities Program. The program allowed us to engage in a learning cycle to incubate and validate social enterprises as key contributors to developing sustainable communities. Throughout this project, we worked with both nonprofit and for profit social enterprises and looked for ways to embed social enterprise into the entrepreneurship ecosystem in our community. 

Establishing funding and investment opportunities

To enable social enterprises to thrive in our community, we needed to go beyond coaching and capacity building supports and consider funding and investment opportunities for those in the start up and growth phases. The need for grants and investments for social enterprises was evident and recognized as a key success factor for social enterprise to flourish in the community. United Way London & Middlesex had the foresight to offer social enterprise grants but at the time, the emerging social enterprises did not align with their funding criteria and impact areas. Today, deploying these grants would not be as difficult.

In 2012, Pillar began working together with many community organizations to explore how to create a social finance framework for London and region. Under the name of Social Finance London, we hosted our first community social finance roundtable event in 2013. At this time, the community agreed that the creation of a formal joint-leadership model for social finance in London was needed to keep expanding local knowledge of the opportunities presented by community investing. Social Finance London volunteers completed an environmental scan that identified that our region accounted for $40 billion of investable assets (sourced by Investor Economics in 2016), and that redirecting even a fraction of these funds toward local impact investments could have significant social impact in our community. What began as Social Finance London has now become VERGE Capital. VERGE Capital now has both a Start Up Fund and a Breakthrough Fund to support the start up and growth phases of social enterprises. As the field has expanded and gained awareness and traction, more grants are now available from foundations and funders for social enterprises. 

Developing a coaching and consulting program

A key deliverable of the Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities program was for us to develop a social enterprise coaching program. With continued funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for a local strategy, we were able to scale our social enterprise coaching program and work to support both nonprofit and for profit social entrepreneurs. Over the course of eight years we have had three different coaches in the role. Each one has come with a slightly different background – some slightly more nonprofit focused, or business focused – with a common thread of dedication to maximizing community impact. Interestingly, these differences parallel the journey of many of the social enterprises we have coached. 

Our experience in developing a support system for social enterprise in London highlighted the importance of the coaching component in the exploration of business model generation, through wrapping a team of advisors around the new enterprise and connecting it to other potential partners. We also expanded our consulting offerings through Impact Consulting to include social enterprise business planning, recognizing a gap in the development of a social enterprise. Conducting assessments, marketing research, business modelling, financial modelling, partnership identification and developing business strategy are some of the areas we have supported social enterprises through our consulting team.

Forming community partnerships to expand support offerings

We recognized that while one to one coaching was effective, it was not sustainable for Pillar as the only means to support the ideation and business model stages of development. When Innovation Works opened, we worked with Libro Credit Union to provide space for emerging social entrepreneurs for up to six months of integrated, supported learning. Through the Libro Social Enterprise Incubator program, we provide ongoing coaching, mentorship, learning opportunities and resources to deepen the sustainability and impact of these social enterprises. Libro also offers their team as coaches for these social enterprises and for our co-tenants. 

Today, we have integrated social enterprise support across a large number of our programs and services. Rather than social enterprise support being a stand alone program, we have integrated our approach across our strategy, communications, and organizational structure. We will continue to evolve our programming to support the changing needs of social enterprises in our community and region. 

We also began to host ‘Socialpreneur Chats’ to create a peer learning environment for social entrepreneurs to share their ideas and challenges in order to move their ventures forward. It started as a weekly opportunity and shifted to once a month for staff and volunteer capacity reasons.

Through our social enterprise coaching program, we established a partnership with Flourishing Business Model Canvas to support our social entrepreneurs in their efforts to design flourishing enterprises; businesses and organizations that are socially beneficial, environmentally regenerative and financially viable. This tool and approach advanced the business model methodology we had been using to support social enterprises.

Another offering for social entrepreneurs that we offered was a matching service where we connected entrepreneurs to an advisor who could offer business support based on their needs.  We looked to formalize this advising service with a program called “Project Rolodex”, a joint project with Great-West Life Project Managers. Involving business in the creation of mentoring social entrepreneurs was promising – businesses were now sensing that social enterprise was a real contributor to our economy and our social fabric. The idea behind “Project Rolodex” was that we would develop a database to do the matching. It became clear quite quickly that curation – by a human – was required. Project Rolodex was revamped into Advisor Connect, which opened up mentoring opportunities for community members specializing in business, nonprofit management, and evaluation. However, we continued to find challenges in managing the relationships between entrepreneur and Advisor. 

Our attempt to formalize the mentor/mentee relationship was time consuming and ultimately not greatly beneficial to either party. Instead, we shifted away from this formal program to connect social enterprises into our network as a whole; ensuring one to one connections with nonprofits, mentors, social enterprises and others from the Pillar network who support their growth. Rather than a formal mentee/mentor relationship we facilitate network building and shared learning opportunities. 

While volunteer mentors and advisors continue to be vital and immensely helpful to our model of offering supports to social enterprises, now ensure that we match mentors with a very specific role. We engage approximately 15 business professionals as review panel members for VERGE Capital’s loan programs, which has been very successful as we are able to engage the advisors with a specific task and timeframe. We could not run our loan programs without their expertise.   

Connecting social enterprises with market opportunities 

When consumers, businesses, nonprofits and government make conscious choices about their purchases this creates social and economic impact in local communities. We seek to promote local socially responsible consumer goods and services whenever possible. We have acted as  a partner and contributor in creating the Social Enterprise Ontario Holiday Gift Guide. In 2017, we hosted our first Meaningful Market to provide an opportunity to showcase both new and existing social enterprises in London. This also provided the opportunity for our startup social enterprises to pitch their emerging innovations to the community for prize money. We had over $5,000 in vendor sales, from our 18 vendors and over 200 attendees at the event. 

Evolving to meet the needs of social enterprise 

Today, we have integrated social enterprise support across a large number of our programs and services including our learning and development program, Impact Consulting, shared space at Innovation Works, public policy advocacy, storytelling and awareness building. Our organizations mission shifted in 2018 from “strengthening the impact of the nonprofit sector” to “strengthening individuals, organizations and enterprises invested in positive community impact” which encompasses social enterprises. Rather than social enterprise support being a stand alone program, we have integrated our approach across our strategy, communications, and organizational structure. We will continue to evolve our programming to support the changing needs of social enterprises in our community and region. 

Helpful hints for supporting the development of social enterprise 
  1. Look for opportunities to provide access to capital – Social enterprises need opportunities for grants and social finance investments for start up, growth and scale.
  2. Integrate into the entrepreneurship ecosystem – Create partnerships with the entrepreneurship ecosystem to leverage their assets and services and create opportunities for shared learning.
  3. Engage coaches and advisors – Develop collaborative relationships with experts in fields such as legal, accounting, and marketing who can provide consultations or be advisors. 
  4. Develop a wrap around support system – It’s important to bring multiple views to the table when providing coaching and mentoring for social entrepreneurs. A local and place-based approach of intermediary supports, entrepreneurship ecosystem support, advisor support and peer support creates a wrap around approach.
  5. Support business models and plans – Social enterprises can benefit from expert support in both business modelling and business planning to ensure a successful business launch.
  6. Encourage focus on the triple bottom line – Equal weight should be placed on the social, environmental and financial impacts of the social enterprise. All elements need to be considered from idea generation to development, implementation and growth. 
  7. Generate sales opportunities – When corporations, academic institutions, public sector institutions, and government buy contracts for goods and services from social enterprises it is a critical lever in creating economies of scale. Looking for opportunities to encourage this social procurement helps organizations to flourish, be sustainable, create jobs and generate social, environmental and financial impact.
  8. Develop a three-pronged approach – Providing a support system for a social enterprise is like a three legged stool that needs to be balanced. There must be equal support systems in place for capacity building, access to capital and market opportunity.
  9. Ensure business development is well-paced – Nonprofits and charities that want to develop a social enterprise need to ensure that they allocate enough time to bring along multiple stakeholder groups that need to learn and understand social enterprise including the opportunities, risk, social and financial impact. This process takes time and needs to be intentional, inclusive and ongoing.
  10. Develop campus community partnerships – Partnering with academic institutions and researchers to evaluate and capture data can aid in evidence-informed decision making when developing business models.
  11. Be open to shifts and trends – Your network will guide and nudge you towards shifts and trends, be sure to listen and adapt as required.
  12. Walk the talk – A support network for social enterprise should ideally be walking the talk by having their own social enterprise models. Having an entrepreneurial spirit or earned revenue strategy for your organization will help you better understand how to support the other social enterprises.